I first learned of this debut novel by Emma Flint from the author herself, who was featured on a panel of “Buzz Authors” at Book Expo 2016, which I had the great fortune to attend. These authors had written the biggest books of the coming year, their publishers proclaimed. And several of the titles introduced here proved worthy of their buzz, including two of my favorites from 2016, The Nix by Nathan Hill and The Mothers by Brit Bennett. If you’ve somehow overlooked these two brilliant novels, make amends and read them right now. (Click here for my review of The Nix.)
Little Deaths doesn’t dazzle in quite the same way as those books, though it doesn’t disappoint either. In part, its lack of luster comes from its style and subject matter. Flint gives us a slow, quiet film noir–style study based on the infamous real-life case of Alice Crimmins, a mother convicted of killing her two children in New York City in the 1960s. In its reimagined version of this incident, Little Deaths brings together an accused woman, her beleaguered ex-husband, an implacable detective, and a hungry young journalist who first wants the story but eventually wants much more.
It’s a story of intersecting characters and imagined motives. Anti-heroine Ruth Malone shares the outlines of her real counterpart, Alice Crimmins. Separated from her husband, she works as a cocktail waitress unafraid to capitalize on her striking looks: “makeup an inch thick, hair just so, clothes that showed everything the good Lord gave her.” What sets Ruth and Alice apart from the typical 1960s woman also makes them easy to indict when the children go missing. Flint shapes Ruth into a fully formed person, flawed to be sure, but not the cold, heartless murderer she’s made out to be. The novel takes us where the public and police are unwilling to go—behind the controlled, stoic facade of an accused woman into her inner world of grief: “She sat up, wrapped her arms around her body, trying not to think of her body, because that would mean thinking of the children it had carried and borne and fed and comforted and nursed and held and slapped and stroked and soothed and loved.”
The author isn’t attempting historical fiction here; she’s writing a character study inspired by actual events and people. Keep reminding yourself of this so as not to judge the liberties Flint sometimes takes with what characters think, say, and know. Occasionally she stretches the fabric of plausibility a little too far even for fiction: as much as we might root for reporter Pete Wonicke to beat the police at their investigative game, it’s unlikely that so many side characters would be willing to spill so much to a journalist for the mere gift of a drink and cigarette. But it takes the viewpoints of all these different people to construct a detailed narrative of that fateful July 1965 night, and to build an authentic profile of the woman at the center of it.
Little Deaths meanders back and forth between Pete and Ruth, between the genres of literary crime and in-depth character study, between the concepts of perception and truth. In a welcome twist at the end, Flint reveals what really happened to Ruth’s children. But, whether real life or a novel, the truth doesn’t have the power to free—not in the overwhelming face of perception, assumption, and judgment.